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PA Wilds: Choosing the Commonwealth over Colorado


Steve and Miranda Putt guide a group out to Umbrella Rock near Ridgway

Country Squirrel Outfitters' new sign

Steve Putt talks to a group about the importance of kayak safety equipment

Rock climbing in the PA Wilds

The CSO Team survives the Kinzua Country Tango, one of many adventure races in the PA Wilds

It wasn't one thing that convinced Steve and Miranda Putt to move their outfitting business Country Squirrel Outfitters from Colorado to the Pennsylvania Wilds four years ago. It was a suitcase of things. Now, four winters, two expansions and an epic flood later, the Putts know they made the right choice, and they aren't the only ones. 

“They have an enthusiasm for the outdoors and a love for the people of our region that is infectious,” says local visitor bureau chief John Straitiff. 

“Young, energetic, knowledgeable, visionary and with a well-established plan where they wanted to take their business,” adds local historian Bob Imhof. 

“Awesome place and great people,” enthuses a 5-star review on Facebook

“Great kayaking on the Clarion River!” insists a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor

“We love it here,” says Miranda Putt. 

The Putts didn't start out as entrepreneurs. The couple knew each other growing up, but it wasn't until after college that they went on a hike and started dating. At the time, Steve worked as a county conservation officer; Miranda as a biologist in the biotech-pharmaceutical field. They were living in Washington, D.C., when they decided they were ready for a change. 

Running a business doing something they loved had always been a dream. 

“We both grew up riding bikes, hiking, and spending most of our time in the woods, on the lake or river,” explains Miranda. 

That love for the outdoors carried into adulthood. When they started dating, Steve hunted, fished and did ultramarathon trail runs. He was an avid backpacker, kayaker and cyclist. Miranda was into rock climbing, running, hiking and cycling. Both liked to snowshoe and ski. 

Between the two of them, they had experience in most activities an outfitter would offer. They also had some familiarity with the nature tourism industry, having grown up working at Lake Raystown Resort in Pennsylvania and holding similar jobs throughout college. Miranda had picked up fairly extensive budgeting and management skills in her first career, and Steve had worked at one of the largest outdoor retailers in the D.C. area. 
“Steve was always a gear junkie,” explains Miranda. “[He] knew a lot about all of the products that we wanted to sell at our store.” 

They took a few business classes and jumped in, moving to that mecca of outdoor tourism, Colorado, where they'd vacationed, and opening Country Squirrel Outfitters (CSO).    

The Putts enjoyed life out west but eventually missed the East Coast, where most of their family lives.

Then Steve heard from a friend that there was an opening for a conservation district manager in Elk County, in the Pennsylvania Wilds. The Putts didn't have family there, but Steve had visited the region many times as a tourist to hike, bike, kayak and participate in trail races. He'd also lived and worked for two years on the eastern side of the region, in Clinton County, home of the famous Hyner View Trail Challenge mountain race. (“One of the toughest 25k runs in this part of the country,” he explains, comparing it to the newer Boulder Dash in Elk County. “Both are loads of fun.”)

The Putts were torn. Steve wanted the Elk County position but neither wanted to leave their business. That's when they saw a listing on the real estate website Zillow: Love's Canoe Rentals in Ridgway, Pa., was for sale. 

Going wild

The Pennsylvania Wilds region covers about a quarter of the state and has one of the fastest-growing rates of visitor spending in the Commonwealth, but it is still a young, evolving outdoor recreation destination. Over the last decade, a robust network of local, state and federal partners have joined forces to strategically grow the region's nature and heritage tourism industry as a way to create jobs, diversify the local economy, inspire stewardship and improve quality of life.  

Outfitters, small as they often are, play a special role in this development because they are key to helping people access the region's main attraction: its wilderness. Two million acres of public land, two National Wild & Scenic rivers, some of the darkest skies in the world and abundant wildlife make for incredible recreation opportunities, but for the uninitiated, that kind of list can also be daunting. 

A good outfitter can help visitors (and residents) experience the region's natural assets in a safe and memorable way — bringing traffic that is then passed on to other businesses, giving a boost to the local economy. 

For 30 years, Ridgway, the county seat with a population of 4,000, was home to Love's Canoe Rentals. The small store and boat launch were on the edge of the historic downtown, situated on the bank of the Clarion River, across the street from a popular rail trail. Long before tourism got traction as an economic engine in the region, owner Dave Love advocated local trails projects and worked to keep the lights on at his store. Around 2009, faced with deteriorating health, he put Love's Canoe up for sale.

Small businesses are difficult to sell, but outfitting businesses face extra hurdles. They are highly seasonal, can have wildly unpredictable revenues due to weather, and be difficult to finance. Could a buyer be found? 

A small canoe rental business opened nearby, but people still wondered what would happen to Love's Canoe. 

“The transition from Love's Canoe Rental to Country Squirrel Outfitters was of vital importance to the economic vitality of Ridgway,” explains Bob Imhof, who serves as an officer on the local heritage council and is involved in regional tourism development.

The big decision

The Putts flew east and spent a week checking out Ridgway and the surrounding area. 

“We really loved the historic town, and thought the store was in a perfect location,” recalls Miranda. 

Steve interviewed for his job and the Putts toured Love's Canoe. There was some overlap of inventory and services between the two outfitters, and some differences, too. Love's catered to paddlers on a slow-moving river; Country Squirrel to whitewater kayakers. CSO also had more emphasis on rock climbing and backpacking. 

“Love's had a bike repair shop and sold Cannondale bikes, which is what we sold in Colorado,” explains Miranda. “Cannondale does not allow more than one vendor in a certain area, but since [Love] already had the rights to sell Cannondale in the area, and we carried them in Colorado, we had an easy vendor transition.” 

That contract was one important factor in the sale, so was the fact that investments were being made to develop the region's tourism industry. The new Elk Country Visitor Center was about to open its doors, along with new Kinzua Bridge Skywalk.

“Obviously our business would not be open if the only customers were local,” says Miranda. “Tourism in the area is absolutely critical for us to survive here. The fact that others understood that — and that money was being put into the region — was so important.”

Back in Colorado, Steve got the call offering him the conservation manager position. Immediately, the Putts started working on the purchase of the store. They used the First Industries Fund, a low-interest loan program designed to spur tourism development in the state, to help finance the deal. 

“We were very grateful that the First Industries Tourism loan was available,” explains Miranda. “Without it, we may not have ever moved our business here from Colorado. We worked with North Central Regional Planning and Development Commission via phone and email while in Colorado. They were such an important resource for us… This loan was low interest, making it very feasible for us to purchase the property.”

The Putts moved to Elk County in June 2010, working on renovations until October 2011. Despite a downpour, many came to their grand opening to welcome them to town. 
The Putts' initial vision was to continue focusing on retail like they did in Colorado, but that quickly expanded into guided services and free group activities. 

“After we moved to Ridgway, bike sales, cycling accessory sales and bike repairs remained high, however, we realized that most people canoed, rather than kayaked,” recalls Miranda. “Also, most folks in this area have never been rock climbing or backpacking. We shifted our gears to focus a little more on the canoe and kayak rentals, and realized that if we wanted to continue to sell rock climbing and backpacking gear, we would need to figure out a way to expose people in the area to these activities.” 

They started offering classes: Intro to Rock Climbing, Intro to Backpacking, Bicycle Maintenance 101, as well as weekly group hikes, group bike rides, and group runs. They also connected with public lands managers in the region to offer programming.
Business grew. Visitors came from Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Ohio, New Jersey, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Canada and other parts of Pennsylvania. CSO hired four part-time employees and, in the summer, beefed their staff up to about 10, adding mostly teachers and college students.

Working with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, CSO has crafted a Commercial Activities Agreement that allows them to guide in multiple locations on state park and forest lands, a unique request as most agreements in the region are for single locations.
“This was very important for us as it allowed us to expand our business and begin offering guided trips,” explains Miranda. “The folks at DCNR were very helpful in helping us work through this process. They were all very supportive of our idea.”
District Forester Jeanne Wambaugh, who oversees the 200,000-acre Elk State Forest, wishes the company well. “There is a need, from the visitors’ viewpoint, for qualified outfitters to assist in some outdoor experiences, to make them memorable,” she says.
Regional Parks Manager Alan Lichtenwalner, who oversees 36 state parks in North Central Pa., calls Country Squirrel’s efforts “innovative, creative.”

“[It's] nice to see a young business looking for various avenues on how to reach customers, providing quality services that connect visitors (and customers!) to the great natural resources we have to offer in the PA Wilds,” he added via email.

According to John Straitiff, head of the local visitor bureau, Country Squirrel brings something extra to the region. 

“They have just started the turn-key guided hiking/camping/climbing trips, which I feel have great potential to attract novice outdoor adventures,” he says. “Many people want to try these things but do not want to invest in all the gear needed until they see if they really like it. Once visitors experience spending time in the PA Wilds with CSO, I am confident they will want to return again and again.”

A rising tide

Country Squirrel Outfitters was named PA Wilds Small Business of the Year in 2014. In front of the store, a new sign, carved by a local artist, has replaced the plastic one from the previous owner. Inside, a piece of wood with “Love's Canoe” painted on it hangs on the wall. It came off a small standing sign that used to be in front of the shop. 

“We decided to hang it in the store as a tribute to Dave Love,” explains Miranda. 

But it hasn't all been easy. On May 21, Ridgway was struck by severe flooding — it would turn out to be the third-highest water level ever recorded, but that morning, people only knew the water was rising, and fast. 

“I was in the thick of it starting at 8 a.m. when I went to the store and checked the USGS gauge on the bridge and noted how fast the water was rising,” recalls Imhof. “I immediately called Steve Putt at the Conservation District Office informing him that we needed to move all of the canoes and kayaks into the new building that, ironically, had just been completed [the night before].”

Steve and another staffer rushed to the store.

“As we started the process, the river was still within its banks,” says Imhof. “But, by the time we were done, the water was above our ankles throughout the parking lot. By the time we were evacuated in a PennDOT snowplow truck, the water was up to my waist.” 

Eight inches of water filled CSO. 

“We ended up having thousands of dollars in damage to our retail space and lost a lot of inventory,” says Miranda. “Everyone pulled together, our staff worked very long days, and we were able to get up and running within a week. Unfortunately this all happened at one of our busiest times of year, Memorial Day weekend, so our sales suffered.”

It was a hard blow for a small outfitting operation. Many customers stopped by to lend a helping hand. 

“The community response was amazing,” recalls Miranda. “We had customers that brought our staff food while they worked on the recovery. Patalano's Place II and Fox's Pizza brought us — and many local businesses — free pizza, which was such an amazing gesture given that they were in the same situation of trying to recover from the flood.”

Things are mostly back to normal at CSO, but they are still waiting on insurance money. None of the exterior damage to the property — to the parking lot or landscaping — will be covered. Despite the setback, the Putts are not deterred. They say they have several expansion ideas they hope to tackle over the next five years. 

“The PA Wilds region has so much to offer tourists,” insists Miranda. “I think there is still much more room to grow, and with the investments made in the area, it should only continue to do so. Our sales have been up every year since we opened, allowing us to expand our business and guided trip offerings. We know that much of this growth is directly related to the overall investment in the nature and heritage tourism 'push' in the area. There are definitely lots of exciting possibilities.”

Asked what fuels them, the Putts didn't miss a beat.

“Our drive just comes from the love of the store, and everything going on there,” muses Miranda. “When you walk in to our store, there is always that good vibe of being surrounded by things that you like, and people that enjoy the outdoors just as much as you do.” 

TATABOLINE ENOS travels the Pennsylvania Wilds working with small business owners, artisans, entrepreneurs and residents who are helping grow the region's nature and heritage tourism industry. She lives in a small farming town in the northwest corner of the PA Wilds with her husband and two young sons. Follow Ta's work at or on Twitter at @pawildsTreps. To explore the PA Wilds region, check out


Entrepreneurship, Features